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234 posts categorized "Decoration"

03 October 2019

Off to a good start: exploring decorated initials

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Decorated initials are one of the most distinctive features of medieval manuscript illumination. Enlarging the letters at the beginning of texts was a practical way to help readers find their place in a manuscript. But it also provided an opportunity for scribes and artists to beautify the page and explore the relationship between text and image. In this blogpost we’re pondering the development and meaning of decorated initials in some of the manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a the opening of a text with a decorated initial
The opening to Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 9th century, England, the Midlands: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

In the 7-9th centuries, initial letters in English manuscripts were decorated like prestige metalwork. This letter ‘b’ from the opening of a 9th-century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History looks similar to the silver disc brooches that were popular among elites of the period.

An Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch, decorated with animal and foliage motifs and a cross design
Disc brooch from the Pentney Hoard, Norfolk, early 9th century: British Museum 1980,1008.3

They share the same round shape, with an outer border divided into panels of decoration, and a central field divided into a cross-shape. Within this rigid geometry, animal and plant forms twist and intertwine, set against a dark background. Using the forms of metalwork connects the decorated letters to a visual language of prestige usually associated with kings and queens. It signifies that the words are precious and powerful.

In the case of the Tiberius Bede, the design also echoes some of the ideas that are expressed in the text. The Ecclesiastical History begins, ‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe.' In the context of this geographic description, the circular bowl of the letter ‘b’ looks similar to a medieval map, divided into the four cardinal points.

A page from a medieval manuscript with a large letter Q formed from interlace animals and plants
The opening to Psalm 51, the Bosworth Psalter, Southern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 10th century: Add MS 37517, f. 33r

In the 10th century, decorated initials moved away from the appearance of metalwork. In manuscripts such as the Bosworth Psalter, the tangled animals and vegetation took over. Whereas in the earlier image the plants and animals were confined to fixed panels within the body of the letter, here they are the letter. The letter ‘Q’ is entirely made up of looping strands that sprout indiscriminately into bunches of leaves and beast heads, which spew out more foliage from their gaping mouths. The endless twisting, transforming and re-generating of forms makes the letter seem alive. This might suggest the life-giving properties of the Psalms, which were central to medieval worship, or it might comment more broadly on the organic qualities of writing in which letters create language and generate ideas.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a large letter D containing a picture of a man beheading another man with a sword
Psalm 101, the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, c. 1012-23: Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

Historiated initials are letters that contain a picture inside. They first appeared in English manuscripts of the 8th century and became an important feature of illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Here in the Eadui Psalter, the initial ‘D’ contains an image of the young David defeating the giant Goliath, aided by God who is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky in blessing. The image encourages the reader to connect the opening words of the Psalm, ‘Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to thee’, to the account of David and Goliath’s combat in 1 Samuel 17, and to consider the ways in which the texts of the Bible interrelate.

In historiated initials, the letter becomes a frame through which readers can glimpse an insight into the text. But the shape of the letter might also add to the effect of the image. Here the upper bowl of the ‘D’ appears to trace the arc of David’s sword swing, vividly creating a sense of the force that David brings smashing down on Goliath’s neck.

It's clear that decorated initials were much more than decorative page markers. If you’re curious to learn more, check out our article on English manuscript illumination on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

 

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17 September 2019

Medieval sacred texts on display

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Biblical manuscripts were essential to all aspects of Christian religious life in the Middle Ages. They were studied as the cornerstone of education, read aloud from the altar, carried in processions and displayed as emblems of the Word of God. Often they are exceptionally beautiful, with the finest artisans, best materials and most reverent care devoted to their creation.

In the run up to the launch of the Library’s new Discovering Sacred Texts resource later this month, we have put some of our stunning biblical manuscripts on display in the Treasures Gallery. Let us take you on a virtual tour to explore the variety and sophistication of these medieval sacred texts.

A text page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, beginning with the decorated initials ‘MAT’ made up of twisting animal forms, and continuing in a bold rounded script.
The prologue (argumentum) to the Gospel of St Matthew, the Lindisfarne Gospels: Lindisfarne, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 18v

In the early Middle Ages, copies of the entire Bible were rare. A church’s most sacred manuscript was more usually a Gospel Book, a copy of the Four Gospels written by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One of the most famous of these is the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was probably created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, as a solitary work of painstaking devotion. The Gospel text is a particularly accurate version of the Latin Vulgate Bible produced by St Jerome, copied from an exemplar that was probably brought from Italy by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow. But the Lindisfarne Gospels’ text is doubly special. In the 10th century a priest called Aldred added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English.

An opening in the Cologne Gospels. On the left page is a frame containing silver writing on a purple background; on the right page is a picture of a seated man with a beard, long robe and large halo, holding a pen and a book, looking at an open book on a stand.
Evangelist portrait of St Matthew, the Cologne Gospels: Cologne, Germany, last quarter of the 11th century, Harley MS 2820, f. 14r

Medieval artists experimented with different ways of decorating the Gospels. Often each Gospel text opened with an ‘Evangelist portrait’ of its writer, based on the Classical author portraits sometimes included in ancient manuscripts. This magnificent example belongs to the ‘Cologne school’ of manuscript illumination, which was characterised by rich painterly decoration. St Matthew is depicted pen in hand, writing his Gospel. On the opposite page, a biographical poem about the Evangelist is written in silver on purple-stained parchment and surrounded by an acanthus-leaf border in imitation of imperial books from ancient Rome.

The beginning of a text with a miniature of three scenes contained inside a tall arched frame. The upper scene shows Christ’s empty tomb, the middle scene shows three women kneeling before Christ, the lower miniature shows a lion with its cubs flanked by two prophets holding scrolls.
Opening to the Gospel of Mark, the Floreffe Bible: Floreffe, modern Belgium, c. 1170, Add MS 17738, vol. II, f. 179v

In the monasteries and great churches of the 11th and 12th centuries, there was a revived interest in giant multi-volume copies of the entire Latin Bible. The monumental format of these manuscripts made them impressive symbols of the Word of God. This Bible from the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe in south-eastern Belgium measures 480 x 335 mm and fills two heavy volumes.

The Floreffe Bible takes an allegorical approach to illustrating the Gospels. Each Gospel text begins with a series of images exploring the relationship between the symbol of its Evangelist and an aspect of Christ’s life. Here at the opening of St Mark’s Gospel, two scenes from Christ’s Resurrection—the Three Marys discovering the empty tomb and then encountering the risen Christ—are depicted along with St Mark's lion symbol, who is shown guarding three small lion cubs. This pairing emphasises the theological link between St Mark’s lion and Christ’s Resurrection, since it was traditionally believed that lion cubs are brought to life when their father roars over them, just as God the Father resurrected Christ.

Opening to a text with a large letter I containing eight medallions, the first seven showing scenes from the Creation of the world and the eighth showing the Crucifixion.
Opening to the reading for the Mass on Christmas Day: Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

Passages from the Gospels were read every day in church services, with particular readings assigned for the feasts throughout the year. In Gospel Lectionaries, Gospel passages are arranged in the order they were read in the Church calendar, rather than in chapter order. This exquisite Gospel Lectionary comes from Sainte-Chapelle, the royal palace chapel in Paris. This page shows the beginning of the Gospel of John which was read during the Mass on Christmas Day. The decorated letter I (for In principio, ‘in the beginning’) depicts God creating the world and Christ dying on the Cross. As such, it illustrates the opening words of the Gospel which describe how the Word of God created all things and became flesh in Christ.

You can come and admire all these spectacular manuscripts for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. And watch this space for more content about our medieval sacred texts coming soon.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 September 2019

A starry night, the Trojan horse and a spinning top

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We have been adding to our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts for over 15 years. This week 25 new manuscripts make their first appearance, each with a selection of spectacular images to view and download. Which are your favourites?

Our nomination among the newcomers, amid very tough competition, is the Breviary of Jean sans Peur (Add MS 35311). We particularly like this miniature of the Virgin and angels, in a jewelled sky above a toy ship in a turquoise sea. John ‘the Fearless’, its owner, was Duke of Burgundy from 1404 until 1419. His Breviary was divided in two; the companion volume is also in our collections (Harley MS 2897).

A ship in a turquoise sea

A miniature of a sailing ship at sea with sailors looking up at the Virgin, Child and angels, from the Breviary of Jean sans Peur, Paris, 1413–1419: Add MS 35311, f. 348v

Coming a close second is this version of the Troy legend, by Guido delle Colonne. According to Historia Destructionis Troiae, the Greeks entered the city after the Trojans had demolished part of the wall to allow in the horse. Hiding inside the horse, a certain Sinon gave the signal to the Greek army to enter the city once the Trojans were asleep.

The Trojan Horse

The Trojans breaking the city walls to let in the horse, from the Historia Destructionis Troiae, Venice, 14th century: Add MS 15477, f. 49v

Sibylla von Bondorff was a nun of the Minorite Order of St Clare in the Freiburg area of Germany. She is known to have illustrated at least 4 books, including two in the British Library. A manuscript of the Rule of St Clare illustrated by Sibylla has also been added to the catalogue: Add MS 15686.

St Bonaventure at his writing desk

St Bonaventure is seated at a writing desk, a book open before him and a pen in his hand; divine inspiration aids him, depicted in the form of a dove; a vision of the stigmatised St Francis flanked by angels appears before him, in the Life of St Francis, S.W. Germany, 1478: Add MS 15710, f. 4r 

This work of saints’ Lives by Jean Beleth contains 154 legends, each with at least one miniature. It includes a number of Welsh and Breton saints, as well as the Irish St Brendan.

St Theophilus and the Devil

St Theophilus and the Devil; on the left, Theophilus surrenders his soul to the Devil in exchange for wealth; on the right the Virgin takes back his deed of surrender from the Devil, from Jean Beleth, Vie des Saints, Paris, 1325–1340: Add MS 17275, f. 29v

The decorated borders of this stunning Book of Hours from Bruges contain a wide variety of identifiable flowers and insects.

The saints adoring the lamb

The saints including St Francis adoring the lamb; a scatter border with flowers and a cricket, incorporating two roundels showing kneeling apostles and martyrs, from a Book of Hours, Bruges, 1480–1489: Add MS 17280, f. 77v 

This charming domestic scene in a Book of Hours shows the family life of Jesus, with Joseph working in his carpenter’s shop, Mary sewing and the young boy playing with a spinning top.

The family life of Jesus

The Holy Family at the beginning of Nones in the Hours of the Virgin, from a Book of Hours, Cataluña, 15th century: Add MS 18193, f. 48v 

Every page in the ‘London Psalter’ (or ‘Scandinavian Psalter’) has marginalia, with a variety of creatures up to all sorts, including this ape playing a musical instrument.

The Beatus initial

'B'(eatus) initial at the beginning of Psalm 1 with King David playing the harp and cutting off Goliath's head; human, animals and hybrid creatures with swords, bows and musical instruments, from a Psalter, Central France, c. 1255: Add MS 17868, f. 32r

This 10th-century collection of the Lives and Passions of the most important Hispanic saints in the 10th century is thought to have originated at the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos.

A zoomorphic letter B

Zoomorphic initial, 'B'(eati), at the beginning of the lives and passion of SS Julianus, Basilissus and companions, from a Passional, Burgos, 919: Add MS 25600, f. 81.

This two-volume set of Gratian's Decretum contains a note in the Catalan language at the end of the second volume (Add MS 15275).

The Pope enthroned

The Pope enthroned, with an assembly including an emperor with an arch-topped crown, three kings or princes, two cardinals and two bishops, with academic clerics in front of them. In the historiated initials are a cleric writing and a figure holding an open book; evangelist symbols, animals and birds in the border, Barcelona, 14th century: Add MS 15274, f. 3r

 

Here are links to all the manuscripts recently added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Items marked with an asterisk can also be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Add MS 10104: Polychronicon; Chronicle of Adam Usk

Add MS 11850: Preaux Gospels*

Add MS 11852: Pauline Epistles

Add MS 13961: Abregé des Chroniques de France

Add MS 15248: Bible moralisée*

Add MS 15274: Gratian's Decretum (vol. 1)

Add MS 15275: Gratian's Decretum (vol. 2)

Add MS 15477: Historia Destructionis Troiae

Add MS 15686: Rule of St Clare

Add MS 15710: Life of St Francis 

Add MS 15749: Prayers and meditations of Anselm, Augustine and Bernard

Add MS 17275: Jean Beleth, Vie des Saints

Add MS 17280: Book of Hours

Add MS 17868: 'London Psalter'

Add MS 18193: Book of Hours

Add MS 18851: Breviary of Isabella of Castille*

Add MS 18852: Hours of Joanna of Castille*

Add MS 18855: Book of Hours with leaves from a calendar by Simon Bening*

Add MS 25600: Passional

Add MS 35311: Breviary of Jean sans Peur 

Add MS 36619: Ordinance of Charles the Bold

Add MS 62925: Rutland Psalter*

Add MS 89379: The Percy Hours*

Egerton MS 3018: Missal of Cologne*

Harley MS 7353: Edward IV Roll*

Sloane MS 2593: Carols and songs

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 August 2019

5 million page-views and counting

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We once declared privately that we would never again begin a blogpost with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But today we have to break that rule: we are extremely delighted to announce that our Medieval Manuscripts Blog recently received its 5 MILLIONTH page-view. We have been blogging about the British Library's marvellous manuscripts since 2010, telling you all about our exhibitions, events and digitisation projects. We hope you have enjoyed reading this Blog as much as we have enjoyed writing it.

To celebrate, and for one day only, we are going to give the Blog over to you, our loyal readers. You keep us on our toes, and your kind and incisive comments help us to know what you're interested in. Earlier this summer, we asked you to tell us which British Library manuscripts inspire you? Here is some of the wonderful feedback we received: what 'delighted' us most was the range of people who responded, from art historians to nuns to calligraphers to fans of tattoos to historic sites, and from across the world. We received so many comments that we're listing them here in alphabetical order. Thank you all again.

PS this is one of the easiest blogposts we've ever had to write, as you've done it for us!

PPS we'd also like to thank the Blog's many contributors over the years (you know who you are); you'll be hearing from some of them over the coming days.

PPPS we'd finally like to thank the funders of our many digitisation initiatives, including The Polonsky Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, without whom it would not have been possible to make so many of our manuscripts available online.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

A knight fighting a snail

 

I started delving into medieval manuscripts and images because I was doing research that included herbals, alchemy, and early medicine. That got me hooked on many other types of medieval images. I can't possibly pick a favorite. So many are divine or informative.

 

Nuria Bono

Nuria M. Bono tweet: 'I'm here for the cats'

Kaleb Borromeo

Kaleb Borromeo tweet: 'they have inspired me to learn the original languages'

The Brooklyn Art Historian

Brooklyn Art Historiam tweet: 'Seyssel's translation of Xenophon's Anabasis, gifted to Henry VII'

The Anabasis manuscript presented to Henry VII

Miniature of Henry VII receiving the book from the translator, Claude de Seyssel: Royal MS 19 C VI, f. 17r

 

Marianne Lee Burdi

Marianne Lee Burdi tweet: 'I always love your snails'

Nancy Ewart

Nancy Ewart tweet: 'You put a banquet in front of me & tell me I can only have one? ONE of the manuscripts I love is the Spanish Beatus'

One copy of the commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana can be found here: Add MS 11695

 

Göktug and Lilac Sunday

Goktug tweet: 'Beowulf is my favourite'; Lilac Sunday: 'Beowulf, I became hooked after the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition'

The Beowulf manuscript can be found online here: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV

 

Brandon Hawk

Brandon Hawk tweet: 'So many British Library manuscripts made it into my book, Preaching the Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England'

Presenting the Rule to St Benedict

A miniature of monks presenting a copy of the Rule of St Benedict to St Benedict: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 117v

 

My research is on the way memory systems work in non-literate and early literate cultures. I read Mary Curruthers "The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture" and started looking at medieval manuscripts for the way they were designed and annotated to aid memory during my PhD research. I already loved the artistry, but add in the incredible mnemonic aids - drolleries and glosses and the layout and lettering - and I fell even more deeply in love with them. I have written about medieval manuscripts and what they can teach us about the memory arts in my most recent book.

I have spent way too many hours browsing your glorious database and choosing a favourite is impossible. But if I have to, the Smithfield Decretals win my vote.

For example, I love this image:

The Smithfield Decretals

A bas-de-page scene of a centaur fighting dragons, in the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 173r

Catherine Leglu

I discovered BL Egerton MS 1500 in 2005 because I was exploring the Occitan manuscripts. I was amazed by the rows of tiny heads, some of them topped by gold crowns, and by the maps. Nobody I asked at the time seemed to be sure what the text was. In 2011 I obtained funding from the Leverhulme Trust, which included digitising the manuscript. Our project's first three articles about Egerton 1500 came out in the eBLJ in late 2013. One of the exciting discoveries was that the columns of kings, popes, doges and emperors included borrowings from some illuminated rolls depicting kings of England, some of them also in the British Library. Since then, I have published several articles on this Occitan version of Paolino Veneto's illustrated history of the world until 1313, and more are to come.

The Occitan illustrated chronicle

Scenes from the First Crusade, in Abreviamen de las Estorias: Egerton MS 1500, f. 46r

Sjoerd Levelt tweet: 'I wrote a whole book about Cotton MSS Vitellius F XV and Tiberius C IV
 
Lewes Castle
Lewes Castle tweet: 'So many, but it has to be the Beowulf manuscript'
 
Linda

I'm a newbie calligrapher, and was transfixed by the carpet pages I've seen in the gallery. So much so that I've actually just spent sixty or seventy hours creating my own, painstakingly painting knots and swirls and even attempting a bit of gold leaf! A brilliant experience for me, though I confess a certain amount of 'Anglo-Saxon' was muttered over the fiddly bits!

Fell into the manuscript rabbit hole whilst researching cats in art...and found a treasure trove. Since then have "spread the words" by posting the occasional video and giving introductory presentations on the story of Med MSS and its artwork at any institution interested... Do I have a favorite? Think the Rutland for its superb dragons and marginalia, Lindisfarne & St Cuthberts of course, the Talbot Shrewsbury, Lisbon Bible...too many favorites to list.

The Rutland Psalter

Historiated initial of a king and queen kneeling before an altar, with Christ above with a sword in his mouth, at the beginning of Psalm 101, in the Rutland Psalter: Add MS 62925, f. 99v

 

Melibeus

Melibeus tweet: 'Seriously? I have to choose a favourite manuscript? That is so cruel. Here we go: the Maastricht Hours'

The Maastricht Hours can be found online here: Stowe MS 17

 

It is incredibly difficult to single out individual items in such an awe-inspiring and magisterial collection of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts as that held by the British Library.

On a personal level, the first manuscript I consulted for my thesis will always stand out. The humble Additional 10289 is a miscellaneous 13th-century book copied at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, containing a history of the abbey in Old French. I remember feeling privileged to be handling the book in the reading room, contemplating the production of its parts and the strange addition of the crude tale Jouglet on the final folios (in which the advice of a mischievous jongleur leads to an unfortunate toilet incident on a young couple’s wedding night…)

I’m currently consulting on a daily basis the Library’s digital images of three important illuminated manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, the earliest universal chronicle in French composed at the beginning of the 13th century. Thanks to the Digitised Manuscripts website, our team has been able to transcribe collaboratively the complete text of the significant Angevin manuscript, Royal MS 20 D I. In addition, we’ve recorded the contents of two substantial 13th-century manuscripts in our digital Alignment tool, which offer insights into the early dissemination of this text in the Holy Land (Additional MS 15268) and northern France (Additional MS 19669).

The ‘Medieval manuscripts blog’ has been an amazing resource for discovering more about the incredible items in the collection, from the illuminations on calendar pages to medieval lolcats, knights vs snails, the mindboggling marginalia in the Maastricht Hours (Stowe MS 17, my personal favourite) and of course, who could forget the unicorn cookbook!

The histoire ancienne

The minotaur, in the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 22r

 

Claudine Moulin

Claudine Moulin tweet: 'Harley 3034: merci for giving us so much'

Claudine's 9th-century manuscript can be found online here: Harley MS 3034

 

Rachel

Rachel tweet: 'Any of the ones with animals on. I even have one tattooed on my arm!'

A good opportunity to tell you I don't have a single favorite. The joy of your blog is exactly that I am surprised by the variation and richness of our heritage. The comments and the wealth of background information is of help, but it is the images on my screen so rich in color and meaning that offer me great moments. Thanks for that.

 

Lucy Freeman Sandler

By a rough count I've written 3 books and about 30 articles either mentioning or solely focused on British Library manuscripts. Not one of these publications could have appeared without 1) access to the manuscripts; 2) the knowledge, assistance and interest of the BL staff; 3) the reference facilities of the BL; 4) the BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts; 5) most recently, and most wonderfully, the digitization of an increasing number of BL manuscripts; and 6) the BL Manuscripts Blog, which provides delight and discovery to specialists and amateurs alike. Bravo!

I have written about several manuscripts that have been featured in this blog, including the Neville of Hornby Hours (Egerton 2781), the subject of my dissertation and several articles as well as a key work in my first book; the Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson 13), the subject of my second book; and the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal 2 B VII), about which I have written two articles. Multispectral imaging by The British Library's Christina Duffy enriched the research for my second article on the Psalter, published earlier this year. Most of my publications mention other BL manuscripts. My research as a whole has benefitted enormously from the BL's digitization initiatives as well as from access to the manuscripts, for which I am extremely grateful. I require students in my "Illuminated Book" course to subscribe to the blog and to use other of the BL's online resources: they and the blog are wonderful resources for teaching.

The Taymouth Hours

Miniature of Christ feeding the 5,000, in the Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 102r

 

Sister Walburga

Sister Walburga tweet: 'Harley MS 3908 is mostly about St Mildred, our second abbess here at Minster Abbey. As it was digitalised I could access it from our monastery. Fantastic!'

Mass for St Mildred

A mass for the feast of St Mildred: Harley MS 3908, f. 42r

25 June 2019

Toads and ermine (and other coats of arms)

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Heraldry, or the study and design of armorial bearings, sometimes has a dusty reputation. This is quite undeserved: heraldic manuscripts can give us a fascinating insight into the way in which history and legend were interwoven in the medieval mind. In the mid-15th century, Richard Strangways of the Inner Temple wrote a treatise on the rules of heraldry that he exemplified with ‘imaginary arms’: coats of arms that were attributed to the protagonists of medieval legends and heroes of romances, and, retroactively, kings who had lived before the beginning of the age of heraldry in the 12th century. His treatise survives uniquely  in Harley MS 2259.

Image 1 - Strangways

Richard Strangways’s heraldic treatise (1455): Harley MS 2259, f. 11r

Strangways included in his treatise the attributed arms of Brutus of Troy, a legendary figure who — according to the anonymous 9th-century Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae — was a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and the founder and first king of Britain. He also painted the attributed arms of William the Conqueror. Like the near-contemporary Men of Arms in Harley MS 4205, Strangways claimed that the Duke of Normandy bore a shield with silver and blue bars when he conquered England in 1066.

Image 2 - Brutus Image 3 - William the Conqueror
The arms of Brutus [left] and William the Conqueror [right]: Harley MS 2259, ff. 179v, 95v

Describing the arms of the kings of France, Strangways followed a popular medieval legend: the pre-Christian kings of the Franks would have borne a pagan shield with three black toads (resembling the attributed arms of Satan), which the Franks continued to use until ‘Kyng Lowes’ [Louis the Pious?] prayed for a new charge and an angel gave him fleurs-de-lis to replace the toads.

Image 4 - Frankish kings

The pagan arms of the Frankish kings: Harley MS 2259, f. 163v

Arthurian literature was evidently another important source for Strangways. He formally described — or to put it in heraldic terms ‘blazons’ — the arms of the legendary King Arthur as a ‘gules three crowns in pale’. This means: a red shield with three golden crowns ordered vertically.

Image 5 - Arthur (blazon)

A blazon of King Arthur’s arms: Harley MS 2259, f. 183r

Image 6 - Arthur (arms)

The arms of King Arthur (England, 4th quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

Strangways also showed the arms of Sir Geraint, who Welsh romances held to be one of Arthur’s most valiant knights, and those of Sir Gawain, one of the most renowned Knights of the Round Table. As the 14th-century Middle English romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Cotton MS Nero A X has it, Gawain bore a red shield with a five-pointed golden star. But Strangways gave him a green shield with a golden bar that is covered with an ‘ermine’ — a heraldic pattern based on the winter coat of the stoat. He stated that adding this ‘fur’ was necessary because Gawain was born in bastardy, a claim corroborated by medieval works such as De Ortu Waluuanii Nepotis Arturi (The Rise of Sir Gawain, Nephew of Arthur). To put it in Strangways’s own words, ‘the rule in heraldry is that if he is born of a noble lady in bastardy and bears her arms he shall bear them with such a fur’ (‘the law of armys ys yf he come of a gret lady in bastardy and ber her armys he shall ber hem with such a furcot’).

Image 7 - Geraint Image 8 - Gawain
The arms of Geraint [left] and of Gawain [right]: Harley MS 2259, ff. 134r, 73r

Harley MS 2259 also features the arms of Sir John Mandeville, the supposed author of a fictional travel memoir describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa and Asia. Mandeville’s Travels survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, but none of the illustrated versions (such as Harley MS 3954 and Add MS 24189) show Mandeville bearing arms. His shield was once displayed in the church of Guillemins near Liège (in modern-day Belgium), where Mandeville was supposedly buried, but the church was destroyed during the French Revolution. Strangways’s treatise includes one of only two extant illustrations of Mandeville's arms, and the only medieval one.

Image 9 - Mandeville

The arms of John Mandeville [‘maximus peregrinus’]: Harley MS 2259, f. 90r

Strangways made special mention of the attributed arms of Prester John. According to popular legend, he was the founder and ruler of a Christian kingdom in the Far East. A letter purportedly written by him to the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Komnenos, describes a kingdom with mythical animals, monstrous races and marvels such as a fountain of youth. The letter survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, the oldest dating back to the 12th century (for example, Harley MS 3099). Prester John’s arms are exceptional because they display the Crucifixion of Christ, imagery that was reserved for only a few eminent bishops and religious institutions.

Strangways emphasized his heraldic charge’s rarity by explaining the distinction between a crucifix and a cross, which was commonly used on coats of arms: ‘It is called a crucifix because God is nailed upon it, because if it is so that God isn’t nailed upon it in person, then it should just be called a cross’ (‘hyt ys callyd a crucyfix be cause god ys naylyd and crucyfyd up on yt. For yf  yt were so þat god were nat naylyd on yt in figure than yt shuld be callyd but a crosse’).

Image 10 - Prester John (blazon)

A blazon of the arms of Prester John: Harley MS 2259, f. 147r

Image 11 - Prester John (arms)

The arms of Prester John (northern France, 15th century): Egerton MS 3030, f. 9v

Strangways’s treatise is just one of several late medieval English heraldic works to feature attributed arms. These ‘imaginary arms’ reflect the importance placed on symbolism by the late medieval gentry and aristocracy, and a desire to associate themselves with important figures in medieval history and legend.

We are currently creating new online records for manuscripts in the Harley collection (one of the foundation collections of the British Library). You can read more about this project, which includes Harley MS 2259 (containing Strangways's treatise), in our blogpost Cataloguing the Harley manuscripts.

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

Clarck Drieshen

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31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

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Visitors to the British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, will no doubt stop to admire a copy of Aristotle’s works on natural sciences, probably made for a medieval student at Oxford University. The careful layout and the perfectly formed gothic handwriting in different styles is impressive, but what will they make of the images on the page?

The page on display shows a decorated letter containing, logically enough, a seated philosopher examining a book and pointing to the heavens. But in the margin there is a man pushing a naked figure in a wheelbarrow, similar to the figures sometimes used to illustrate the fool of Psalm 52, “The fool (insipiens) said in his heart: There is no God” (e.g. in the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925). What does this scene have to do with Aristotle?

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A philosopher and a man pushing a fool in a wheelbarrow, Aristotle’s Libri naturales, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3487, f. 22v  

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were translated into Latin and completely transformed ideas on philosophy and natural science in Western Europe. A number of manuscripts containing works by Aristotle or attributed to him have been digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 and are referenced in this article https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/medieval-science-and-mathematics.

Despite Church disapproval of the study of ‘pagan’ writings that contradicted its teachings, and the subsequent banning of Aristotle’s works in Paris, they soon became key texts in medieval universities. This book contains a collection of the required reading on the Oxford curriculum, complete with glosses and commentaries in the margins and between the lines of text to provide detailed explanations. But it is the decoration that makes this manuscript unique: it is exceptional for a volume of Aristotle’s works to be so elaborately illustrated at this time. There are 29 historiated initials, one at the beginning of each book or chapter, each representing the text that is to follow. Because there was no earlier tradition of illustrating Aristotle’s texts, the artists had to be innovative. Sometimes they adapted subjects from other genres, and sometimes they invented new ones.

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Books being burned before a king, a friar and others, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 4r

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the initials is the first in the manuscript, on the opening page of Physics. The decorated letter on this page depicts a small child throwing books onto a fire before a king, a friar and other figures.  Scholars have suggested that this scene represents the burning of books of Aristotle’s works in Paris in 1210, while the friar represents the role played by the Franciscans and other preaching orders in teaching Aristotle.

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A windmill and a bird, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 161r

The most well-known image in this manuscript is one of the earliest depictions of a windmill. This is found at the beginning of the book Meteorologica, which includes early accounts of weather phenomena. Here a man is adjusting the direction of a windmill to catch the wind. Beneath, a bird holds a twig in its beak, perhaps referring to the way that birds use the wind in flight.

Now, let’s return to the illustration of a philosopher star-gazing and a fool riding in a wheelbarrow on the page on display in the exhibition. It appears at the beginning of book IV of Physics, which studies the Heavens. A possible interpretation for this image is that it juxtaposes knowledge and foolishness. The seated philosopher inside the letter is looking up at the stars, but above him the fool could be a reminder that too much knowledge leads to madness. But as with many of the marginal images in the manuscript, there are no definite explanations.

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A coat of arms, possibly of a son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford, with one man blowing a horn and another eating, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 216r

This manuscript is an example of the skills that came together in 13th-century Oxford to produce a work that is both educational and entertaining. The thoughtful explanations and interpretations of the text, the remarkable planning and layout, and the innovative decoration and illustration, make it easy and delightful to use. The owner must have been one lucky student, and indeed a likely candidate would be the son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford (fl. c. 1256), member of one of the richest and most powerful families in England at the time.

 

Chantry Westwell

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05 February 2019

Sutton Hoo and Anglo-Saxon East Anglia

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The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, is open until 19 February 2019. Alongside some of the most significant manuscripts from our own collections, and important loans from other institutions, are a number of outstanding archaeological finds. Among them are artefacts from Sutton Hoo.

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The Sutton Hoo belt buckle: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.1

Sutton Hoo is one of the most famous excavations in British archaeological history. In 1939, the owner of the site, Edith Pretty, asked her gardener to investigate the curious mounds on her land. After some initial digging, it was thought prudent to involve the experts at the British Museum, and over the coming weeks they revealed a ship burial and many precious objects. We are delighted that a selection of these treasures are on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

The Sutton Hoo treasures included weapons, such as a sword, a set of spears and a famous helmet, and items associated with Anglo-Saxon dress, such as the great buckle and two shoulder-clasps. In our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are displayed the sword-belt, complete with scabbard slider and strap distributor, and the gold belt buckle. These stunning objects have been generously loaned to the British Library by the British Museum.

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The scabbard slider and strap distributor from the Sutton Hoo sword-belt: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.10

The Sutton Hoo burial site lies within the territory of the former Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. Some people have argued that the man in the main ship-burial was the 7th-century King Rædwald, who is described in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. According to Bede, Rædwald was a pagan when he came to the throne, before converting to Christianity later in his reign. Rædwald does not appear to have entirely given up his pagan ways. In Bede's words, 'he seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods who he had previously served; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another altar on which to offer victims of the devils'.

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Bede describes Rædwald’s pagan practices in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

In our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, these treasures from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial are displayed alongside other archaeological discoveries found in the kingdom of East Anglia or the neighbouring kingdom of Kent. Many of these items are on loan from Norwich Castle Museum.

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Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2017,519.6

On display in the exhibition is a gold and garnet pendant, found in the grave of a woman at Winfarthing, south Norfolk. This elaborately decorated pendant rivals the jewellery from Sutton Hoo. The woman who was buried with it seems to have been a Christian, as she was also buried with another gold pendant that features a cruciform design.

The decoration on the Sutton Hoo gold buckle features an intricate web of thirteen snakes, predatory birds and long-limbed beasts, delineated by alternating gold and niello backgrounds that give their bodies contrasting texture. The exhibition provides an unrivalled opportunity to compare their design with the decoration of contemporary manuscripts. For example, very similar insular interlace can be found on the pages of late 7th-century gospel books, such as the Book of Durrow, on loan to the exhibition from Trinity College Dublin.

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The Book of Durrow: Dublin, Trinity College, MS 57, f. 85v

The sources and inspiration for the artwork in the Book of Durrow stretch from Ireland to Anglo-Saxon England and from Pictland to the Mediterranean. The items found at Sutton Hoo in turn show connections between East Anglia and other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Francia and Byzantium. These treasures bear witness not only to Anglo-Saxon ambition and workmanship, but they also demonstrate their relationships with the wider world.

The spectacular treasures from Sutton Hoo are on show in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library until 19 February. Many session have already sold out, so to avoid disappointment we suggest that you book your tickets in advance

Becky Lawton

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16 January 2019

The Southwark Hours: a new acquisition

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The British Library is pleased to announce its recent acquisition of an illuminated medieval manuscript, the Southwark Hours, now Add MS 89309. It is now fully digitised and is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery for all to admire.

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Christ in Majesty with the Evangelist symbols: Add MS 89309, f. 94r

The manuscript is a Book of Hours, made in Paris in the last quarter of the 14th century. Books of Hours contained sets of prayers for reading at different ‘hours’ of the day and night. Spanning the divides of gender, age and status, they were the most popular books owned by laypeople in the late Middle Ages. The Southwark Hours is a particularly fine example. Its pages are festooned with ivy-leaf borders glittering with gold, and its major prayers are headed with delicate illuminations attributed to the ‘Ravenelle Master’. For its patron, most likely a French noblewoman, it would have been an invaluable aid to piety as well as a beautiful book.

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The Entombment: Add MS 89309, f. 215v

We can catch a glimpse of this mystery patroness within the manuscript’s pages. The prayer for the final hour of the day (Compline) in the set of prayers known as the Hours of the Passion is accompanied by an image of the Entombment of Christ. In the image, Christ’s dead body is laid out on his tomb by two pall-bearers, while the Virgin Mary, St John, St Mary Magdalene and two other holy women gather in mourning. The woman who kneels praying in the foreground is almost certainly a portrait of the manuscript’s original owner. Her insertion into the Passion scene evokes the intimate and emotional experience that she hoped to achieve through her prayers.

The head and shoulders of the same woman also appear within a decorated initial at the opening of the Penitential Psalms, beneath a miniature of Christ in Majesty (f. 94r), pictured above. She gazes at the words from Psalm 6: ‘Domine ne in furore tuo arguas me neque in ira tua corripias me’ (O Lord, rebuke me not in thy indignation, nor chastise me in thy wrath), while the illuminated figure of Christ looks down at her.

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The Annunciation: Add MS 89309, f. 20r

The most impressive page in a Book of Hours is usually the opening prayer for the first hour of the day (Matins) in the Hours of the Virgin — a series of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary that were central to any Book of Hours. True to tradition, the Southwark Hours opens this prayer with an exquisite illumination of the Annunciation.

It is apparent that before the arrival of the angel, the Virgin Mary had been reading studiously. Looking closely, we can read her open book, ‘Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium’ (Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son; Isaiah 7:14), and so discover that she is studying the Old Testament text that prophesies about her own important role in salvation history. She kneels on a sumptuous blue cloth patterned with golden stars, recalling her epithet as ‘Stella Maris’ (star of the sea). The vase of lilies in front of her symbolises virginity.

In contrast with the Virgin Mary’s serene stillness, the angel Gabriel makes a dramatic entrance from the upper left. One foot trails out of frame and one peacock-feather wing projects in front of the frame, giving the impression of immediacy and movement. Gabriel’s gracefully looping scroll bears the prayer ‘Ave Maria’ (Hail Mary; based on Luke 1:28 and 42). Meanwhile, God the Father presides in the upper corner and the dove of the Holy Spirit descends. The scroll of musical notation carried by the three angels in the upper border encourages us to imagine divine music accompanying the scene, while the scroll-bearing prophets in the lower margin prefigure this momentous event.

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The Deposition: Add MS 89309, f. 210v

The manuscript formerly was on long-term loan from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark (Loan MS 85/4). Mgr Matthew Dickens, the Vicar General & Chancellor & Trustee of the Archdiocese of Southwark, commented: ‘We are delighted that the British Library has been able to acquire for its permanent collection the Southwark Book of Hours. This is a particularly fine example of illuminated manuscripts of this period and it is right and proper that it should be held in a major national collection, to be enjoyed by the public and to be available for scholarly research. I should like to thank the British Library staff and donors who have made this acquisition possible.’

Dr Kathleen Doyle, the British Library’s Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, said: ‘I am delighted that the Southwark Hours is joining the Library's remarkable collection of illuminated manuscripts, including treasures of French illumination and Books of Hours from across Europe.  The manuscript is an important witness of the Ravenelle Painter’s work, and one of only two that indicates that the he worked for aristocratic female patrons.’ We are grateful to the Friends of the British Library for their assistance in funding this acquisition.

The manuscript is now on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, together with another manuscript (Add MS 35215) and two printed Books of Hours, to allow visitors to compare the similarities and differences between the same text in different media.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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